The following is an interview with Alison Griffiths, author of Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinemas, Museums, and the Immersive View. Griffiths is associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York, and on the doctoral faculty of the Graduate Center. She is also the author of Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn of the Century Visual Culture:
Q: The word “immersion” generates a lot of buzz in contemporary culture. But what exactly is an “immersive view” and why do we need a book about it?
Alison Griffiths: An immersive view is provided by an image or space such as a painting, photograph, film, or museum exhibit that gives the spectator a heightened sense of being transported to another time or place. Certain architectural forms can immerse visitors, including the Gothic cathedral, which creates a sense of the infinite and divine through the vaulted ceiling and other features. Immersive views take you out of the here and now, giving you the experience of having suddenly entered a new world, similar to virtual reality, but without the headgear. Cinema does this exceedingly well, especially large format films such as IMAX, which brands itself on the idea of virtual movement through space, that sense of being there that drives the marketing. But there is nothing new about the experience of immersion, as I explain in Shivers Down Your Spine: panoramas (huge circular paintings extremely popular in the nineteenth century), planetariums, and museums of science and natural history have long exploited the phenomenon. What this book provides is some much-needed context and theorization of the idea of immersion by drawing extensively from the historical archive.
Q: Why do immersive views give us “shivers down our spine?” Isn’t this a term associated more with horror films?
AG: We get “shivers down our spine” because there’s a disjunct between what we see and feel and what we know is happening to us. Giant panoramic paintings that I discuss in chapter two can take your breath way not only because you feel as if you’ve suddenly walked into the world of the paintings (you are enveloped by it), but because it’s an embodied experience which can give you shivers, tears, and sometimes vertigo or nausea. It’s that jaw-dropping sense of awe, reverence, and perhaps a little fear that makes the comparison to the horror film fitting, although the line “shivers down your spine” was used by a panorama reviewer in 1799 to describe the effect of seeing panorama inventor Robert Barker’s spectacular painting The Battle of the Nile which represents the decisive battle between Napoleon’s French fleet and Admiral Nelson’s Royal Navy.
Q: What are some of the most easily accessible immersive views in today’s culture? Where can we go to experience this sensation?
AG: Museums of natural history deliver “shivers down your spine” and immersion on two fronts: not only do the galleries feature exhibits that re-create natural environments such as the rainforest in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History, but they also frequently feature IMAX screens which are exemplary at delivering immersion. Movie theaters showing IMAX films, especially the purpose built theaters with fifteen-story screens as opposed to retrofitted IMAX theaters, are the most convenient places to go to experience the “immersive view.” The classic “phantom ride” shot when the audience feels they are flying through the air or hurtling on a rollercoaster is synonymous with the immersive view, and exploited most fully in theme park type thrill rides. Immersive views can be long or short, loud or quiet, familiar or unsettling. They are, however, almost always marked by a sense of the uncanny.
Q: The second half of the book deals exclusively with museums. Why are they so important?
AG: One cannot really talk about the immersive view without dealing with museums, since the two go hand in hand. While the first half of Shivers concentrates on specific historical instances of the immersive view—cathedrals, panoramas, planetarium space shows, and IMAX film—part two shows how a great many of the themes uniting these spaces—presence (essential in immersion), virtual travel, death, a “revered gaze,” visual spectacle, the sublime, and a sense of awe—are all mobilized in the museum. Museums have always relied upon technologies of vision and sound, such as photography, recorded sound, cinema, and electronic images to heighten the gallery experience and to enhance learning and understanding through sensory and emotional appeal. Cutting edge exhibits such as “Can Man Survive” (American Museum of Natural History, 1967) and “African Voices”(National Museum of Natural History, 1999), discussed in part two of the book, reveal a great deal about how ideas of immersion and interactivity were central to the curators’ visions of these exhibits and some of the utopian and dystopian discourses the exhibits engendered. There is, therefore, a strong sense of déjà vu in contemporary debates about new media in the museum and the role of immersive and interactive environments.
Q: Interactivity is also a buzzword we hear today and that you have a lot to say about it in Shivers Down Your Spine. How is interactivity connected to immersion?
AG: Museums were among the earliest public places to experiment with interactivity, although a great many of the techniques that ended up in galleries had initially been used in nineteenth century world’s fairs and expositions. But interactivity, or hands-on techniques, which are ubiquitous in many museums taking the form of touch-screen interactive kiosks or simple manipulatives which invite visitors to twist a knob or pull a lever, have always generated a fair amount of skepticism within professional museum circles and are connected to ideas of immersion in complex and contradictory ways. The Science Museum in London, the subject of Chapter Five, provides a fascinating window onto early discussions and parliamentary debates on the efficacy of exhibiting machines in motion. While an immersive exhibit need not have any interactive elements, chances are it will, since the two ideas are very much linked.
Q: Like your earlier work, Wondrous Difference, your new book references a great deal of historical material from the American Museum of Natural History. What is it that keeps drawing you back to this institution?
AG: As I say in the opening line of my acknowledgments, I can’t seem to stay away from museums, especially the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Scholars in cinema, visual, museum, and cultural studies are slowly turning to alternative sites of traditional and new media to uncover their rich and fascinating histories as deliverers of visual and popular culture. The AMNH is an incredible resource in this respect, and Shivers Down Your Spine represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of furthering our understanding of how this phenomenal museum, among the finest in the world, has negotiated a careful path between scientific and popular culture.